The United States has significantly ratcheted up pressure on the Turkish government to withdraw recently dispatched troops out of Iraq, with President Barack Obama reaching out to his Turkish counterpart to resolve a row between the two US allies.
The White House said on Friday that Obama phoned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as part of a continued diplomatic push by Washington to end the crisis between Iraq and Turkey.
Turkey has been keeping troops since last year in a military training base near Mosul, currently held by the ISIS of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but decided to reinforce the units with additional troops out of what Ankara says “security concerns.”
The move by Turkey met with strong protest by Baghdad, backed by Moscow and Washington, and Turkey was forced to withdraw part of its troops from the training field. As the war of words between Turkey and Iraq continued, ISIL militants fired mortar rounds on the base, wounding four Turkish soldiers. Turkish officials said the ISIL attack justifies the deployment of Turkish troops to the base in the town of Bashiqa.
Before Obama’s Friday call to Erdoğan, Vice President Joe Biden twice called Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, with the latest one on Thursday. Bowing to international pressure, Turkey said it would “reorganize” its military units, withdrawing some of the troops to the northern part of Iraq. Obama told Erdoğan that Turkey needs “to take additional steps to de-escalate tensions with Iraq.”
Obama also told Erdoğan that Turkey needs to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq.
There was no word on how Erdoğan responded to Washington’s increasing pressure, but the statement said the two leaders agreed to work together on diplomatic efforts between the United States, Turkey, and Iraq to “reduce tensions and to coordinate military efforts against ISIL.”
As Obama and Erdoğan spoke on the phone, Iraq pushed the UN Security Council to condemn the “Turkish occupation” of Iraq.
Good ties with Iraq is important for Turkey, who is waging a separate war against militants linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. To resolve the latest crisis, Ankara sent Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu and spy chief Hakan Fidan to Baghdad last week for bilateral talks. The negotiations initially went well, but later collapsed after Turkey refused to completely withdraw the troops.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari told the Security Council on Friday that his country has spared no effort to exhaust all diplomatic channels and bilateral negotiations with Turkey before asking the 15-member council to adopt a call on Turkey to withdraw troops.
Turkey’s UN Ambassador Halit Çevik criticized Baghdad for undermining the global fight against ISIL and said the troops were sent only to provide additional support in the face of increasing threat by the extremist group.
“From the outset, we tried to resolve this matter through bilateral channels. Because taking this issue to various international platforms would serve no other purpose than to undermine the solidarity of the international community against Daesh,” Çevik told the Security Council. Daesh is the Arabic acronym of ISIL.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Council on Friday he hoped that Iraqi and Turkish governments will exercise restraint and intensify their bilateral discussions to diffuse tensions.
In Baghdad, the US Commander of the fight against ISIL, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland told reporters on Thrusday that the US is doing its best to get “this issue sorted out.” He added that the overarching principle for the US is that Iraq is a sovereign country, and foreign forces should only be there if requested by the government of Iraq.
In southern Turkey, the US had been working jointly with Turkish authorities to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels as part of a campaign to liberate the last remaining stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border that is controlled by ISIL. Increased Russian activity on the area further complicated the US-led coalition’s efforts to clear ISIL militants from the Turkish border.
During the phone call, Obama stressed the value of Turkish contributions to the anti-ISIL campaign, and the two leaders also discussed intensifying cooperation on Syria. White House said Obama and Erdoğan talked about joint efforts to strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition and step up pressure on ISIL, as well as continued efforts to create conditions for a negotiated solution to the conflict.